Dear Archaeologists: let’s give woad a chance?

Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

If you read my bio, let me guess: your first reaction to me is probably “ah, here’s one delusional woman”. Don’t be shy, I know that’s the first impression. I’m used to it. In fact, I won’t dissuade you from thinking whatever it is you’re thinking. What I’m about to say here doesn’t come from “woo”, I promise. It comes from common sense — a special kind of common sense you’re ignoring, perhaps because of internalised racism against tribal culture. Yes, you read it correctly. I don’t sugarcoat.

Here’s the premise I’m about to discuss: a lot of archaeologists, historians, etc especially in Europe and North America, are hesitant to imagine their own ancestors (which includes the Picts and/or other Britons) painting their bodies because they have internalised racism — Unaddressed internalised racism — against tribal culture. Yes it still exists in today’s world, here and now. Think of the Pirahã in the Brazilian rainforest; think of the Himba in the Namibian desert; think of Australian aboriginal peoples. When you think of them, what do you picture in your head? Are these tribes your potential friends, your potential peers? Or are they just “there” whereas you’re “here” for time indefinite, each to their own? Perhaps it’d even offend you to be compared to them, deep down?

We’ve come a long way since the grim times of colonialism and slavery, haven’t we? Today people would like to think of themselves as inclusive, compassionate, open-minded… In contrast to our not-so-distant ancestors who were anything but. Okay, fair enough. But have we really addressed and dealt with all the prejudice that needs to be addressed in the “my way of life is better than yours” department? 100%? Honestly? I’d like to answer “yes”, but when I take a good look around me, I doubt it.

Look, this isn’t a contest for who is the saintest and purest human being on planet Earth. I am not here to shame you or make you cry. I’m not here to look at you from a high horse and feel holier-than-thou either. My one and only objective here is to open your eyes to a specific kind of bias that could be holding you back from thoroughly understanding our past — and isn’t it what your job as archaeologists and historians entails? I’m sure it is.

Sometimes, in order to remove or overcome an obstacle on the way, we must first acknowledge that maybe… just maybe… we’re standing on our own way; Maybe you’re being your own enemy, if you will. All in the name of fear, because I’m sure it’s scary to get to “know thyself” and see ugly stuff within you that you didn’t want to see. But there are times when unfortunately that’s the only way forward. Someone needs to do that dirty work, so consider me the bitch who isn’t afraid of helping.

Anyway, if you aren’t yet ready for what I said above, fear not. Let’s just talk about woad and forget this sociological comment for a moment.

Argument #1 — “But Julius Caesar didn’t meet the Picts”

Photo by tommao wang on Unsplash

Aye, Julius Caesar had been to Britain… Just not far enough North to see the Picts. He famously wrote that all Britons stain themselves with woad, which gives them a scary look in battle, or whatever the words he used — I don’t speak Latin, I’m relying on translations, so allow me to paraphrase as much as I want. There’s a lot to unpack in it anyway.

Let’s first address the common translation, without exploring possible mistranslations.

“All Britons” is a generalisation, it refers to all the native Britons Caesar happened to see. That’s why I don’t hate the “he didn’t meet the Picts” argument as much as I hate the other ones, because at least it’s sober. It goes according to historical evidence — indeed, Caesar and the Picts didn’t cross paths. Judging by his landing in the southeast of Britain and conflict with the Iceni, we can infer he met the ancestors of the Welsh, not the Picts (I mean, technically many different tribes on a common group of languages. But this goes both ways, the “Picts” were a load of different tribes on a common group of languages too. Don’t be pedantic).

Do you see where I’m going, dear archaeologists? Or do you want me to make a drawing? Please excuse my condescending tone, I’m trying hard to stay civil. It’s difficult, though, when faced with your cognitive dissonance.

What’s that saying, again? “You can’t have it both ways”, lads. You can’t simultaneously say Caesar met the Welsh, not the Picts, AND in other papers, the Pictish language was related to Old Welsh. Am I right? Either the Picts were in contact with the Welsh, or they weren’t. In the same logic, either they heard of Caesar through these very close friends who even spoke a similar language, or they didn’t. And if Picts and Welsh had exchanged something as intimate and basic as linguistic influence, then I suppose it’s safe to say they could have learned cultural habits from each other, too. I rest my case.

No, wait. Although I probably already won the case anyway, let’s keep going. The arguments against Pictish use of woad get even more absurd the more you look into them:

“Caesar didn’t meet the Picts” isn’t even the most popular one. There’s another, which everyone keeps parroting on the internet in order to sound smart: “vitrum (the Latin word for woad, but also glass) meant glass, not woad, in Caesar’s statement”.

Oh, yeah. Sure. Glass is the most reasonable translation, you say?

Explain to me, then, why would a Roman Emperor who had built a reputation for himself as a brave man, going where nobody had ever been… Be afraid of glass beads around a warrior’s neck? Can you see how bizarre that sounds? It’s like saying Superman has arachnophobia. Bold statement, especially in want of evidence. People should be laughing of it, not agreeing.

Even if this “correction” was reasonable, you have to consider the context. Why is everyone so quick to say vitrum means glass, but shy away from the verb “to stain”? The statement isn’t simply “they use glass”, it’s “they stain themselves (or their skin or whatever) with glass”. How on Earth would that make sense? Have you ever stained yourself with glass? If so, where were you, and what kind of mushrooms had you been eating? I’m curious… For Science.

Argument #2 — “There is no evidence of woad in excavations”

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That argument is correct, but simplistic. In fact I’d be surprised if it was wrong, and all the woad used by Picts had in fact been preserved. Sure, sometimes we come across preserved organic material like wool, other fabrics, hair, and even skin in case of mummufied findings — but they are quite rare.

I understand the idea that we can’t exactly prove something without concrete evidence (or else religions would become sciences — imagine that!), but when it comes to ancient herbalism, there is actually an indirect way to go about finding concrete evidence: talk to a local botanist. See what grows in nature, and find out how long it’s been growing in nature, whether it’s invasive or native, how well it grows and where.

There’s a seedling in my back garden. I live in Ireland (see bio), woad is a weed here. In fact it’s also a weed in America, but only arrived with the first Irish immigrants, whereas it has existed here (and Britain, and most of Eurasia) for millennia. There are hypotheses that woad arrived here with the first Celtic invaders during the Iron Age, and thrived in the local temperate weather ever since.

Hence, for me, what I said above suffices. But perhaps white people have a certain resistance to the idea of living in harmony with nature, because they associate that with “uncivilised” savages in tribes. We consider it good and proper to keep cooking, preparing medicine, cleaning our houses, and overall surviving with only a limited number of imported ingredients instead of just learning what grows locally for free. That’s a colonialistic mindset I am not necessarily judging, just exposing here. Of course when you come from a colonialist society, you don’t simply accept that your ancestors knew how to identify and use what is easily accessible to them — That’s what Native Americans do, and you’re white instead, and everything is a partisan issue these days.

If you think I’m reaching, think of the Chinese. To this day, they know the meaning of valuing what they have locally — there’s video evidence. In Asia, the meaning of “civilised” isn’t as strict as it is in Europe, perhaps because there was no Roman Empire or Christianity there. They didn’t have our same flavour of colonialism, and therefore didn’t internalise certain notions.

Moving on…

Argument #3 — woad isn’t naturally colourfast, it doesn’t stay on the skin, it can’t be done

Photo by Author

Don’t mind me, just painting my ankle here.

Dear archaeologists, historians, and scholars from adjacent areas: if you’re in college at all, I assume you know the meaning of argumentum ad ignorantium. Do you? If you haven’t heard the name of the fallacy, you probably at the very least studied its meaning, and know you should avoid engaging in it. In case you’re totally in the dark (I’m literally gasping!), Google it.

The argument that “it’s impossible to paint with woad therefore it’s debunked” isn’t just based on ignorance and easy to counter — it’s also unethical and shouldn’t even be allowed in Academia (because, let me reiterate, it’s a rhetoric fallacy old as balls, even the Ancient Romans knew it and are probably cringeing at you from the afterlife). Yet, lo and behold, here we are, having to try and unsee it in papers that have literally been published. This is why I left Academia, lads. Too much hypocrisy. Sorry, someone had to say it.

Anyway, I’m feeling generous and would like to help the bookworms who perhaps have forgotten how to do empirical research. Don’t worry, I’ve been there too. Not a high horse.

Photo by Author

You’ll need 2 ingredients.

Woad supplies can be purchased from any vegan dye shop or natural dye/experiment shop. If you want recommendations for a post-Brexit world: caters to the UK, Renaissance Dyeing to the EU (I’ve bought from both), and there are a bunch of etsy sellers all over the world you’ll have to try for yourself. I’d recommend buying the powder, since the process to extract dye from the plant is a bit annoying, yields aren’t very high, etc.

Lime powder is a bit more specific, PAY ATTENTION HERE in order to prevent accidents: don’t just order “lime” from wherever. What you’re looking for is raw lime, since quicklime is caustic. You can find raw lime (not the other kind!) in garden centres and pet shops. If it’s safe for animals to eat, it’s safe for contact with human skin.

You’re very unlikely to be allergic to raw lime, since it’s usually present in hard water (the one we shower and wash hands with). Spot testing woad is a good idea, though — apply some to skin, wait an hour and see.

The recipe that works for me is 1 part lime for 3 parts woad powder. Mix roughly. Add a few drops of tap water, just enough to form a paste. If you overdo it, you’ll need more woad and there’s no way back, so be careful.

Use a brush (unless you don’t mind staining your nails blue for a few days) and have fun. Wash with soap to remove, water alone won’t do. The skin does absorb it after 24h (yes I tested, YOLO), but I’m guessing you don’t want stained sheets and pillows. Yes, before you ask, the Picts (and all Celts) invented soap.

In conclusion: painted Celtic warriors isn’t a stereotype. Stop saying it is. You’re being disingenuous and misusing your credentials to paint your own bias as a “truth”.

I’m all for Science (which includes Humanities), but you must help me to help you. If you keep insisting on presenting a hypothesis, which is actually very weak and goes against first-hand accounts still surviving in writing to this day, as a “truth” just because it sounds nice to you… then you’re no different from conspiracy theorists and religious people. We had a similar incident in the Linguistics department, the infamous “Altaic” hypothesis that also became akin to a religion. It proves that “because I’d like it to be true” isn’t strong enough of an argument anywhere, let alone in scientific papers — no matter how much you dress it up with empty justifications that boil down to “come on lads it cannae be”. Regardless of what you’d like to be true, the actual truth is there, existing unbothered, waiting for you to discover it. Delusional thinking has been plaguing Academia in the last few decades, unfortunately, but nobody is forced to participate in it just ’cause it’s common. It’s a choice. YOUR choice.

You don’t have to test my recipe — but if you keep affirming that one can’t make body paint with woad after reading this article, then you’re just using a fallacy and should be ashamed of yourself. I’m under no obligation to be nice to people who would rather hold on to their delusions and thinly veiled ideologies.

Let me also remind you, once again, that this is an article about woad. I chose not to speak on the “naked warrior” side of the story here. If in doubt whether or not it’s “a thing” to simultaneously wear clothes and paint yourself, look no further than today’s makeup culture. Although there’s a point to be made about the existence of both naked and clothed warriors among the Picts (see this handsome lad carved in stone, as well as this battle scene), that’s a bit of a derail, and a topic for another post.

There is zero gnosis in here — I’ve only used my academic voice, or what’s left of it. If you’d like to take what I said onboard, welcome. If you’d like to disagree, let’s talk, but please avoid looking solely at “who” I am, because that’s a form of argumentum ad hominem. Perhaps I’ve been away from college long enough that today it’s somehow acceptable to use rhetoric fallacies and they’re no longer a taboo… who knows? But I’m a bit conservative in that regard and won’t take kindly to them anyway.

The choice to decide where to go from here is in your hands. I hope you make a wise choice, and wish you the best of luck.



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Meron Nic Cruithne

Meron Nic Cruithne

Meron is a psychic and spirit worker based in Ireland. She talks to the dead around her, especially the Picts. Please read her pinned post before any other.